“Much has fallen silent, many people have left,” the poem begins. “But songs have remained and days have remained. This truth has remained: You and I are alone. . . . My heart is completely open, like the surface of a river. If you want to see it, you may.”
The verse belongs to the Russian poet Alexander Blok, but the qualities of its glow might also describe one of the many musical voices of Mieczyslaw Weinberg: solitary, wistful, unguarded, beaming.
Weinberg (1919-1996) is surely the most fascinating Soviet-era composer that most Western listeners, until a decade ago, had never heard of. He chose this Blok poem for a song cycle called “Beyond the Border of Past Days,” a title that also hints at the forces of memory that shaped Weinberg’s own life and his almost surreally prolific career writing music in the shadow of catastrophe.
Weinberg, whose Holocaust-themed opera, “The Passenger,” just received its New York premiere, lived a life buffeted by the winds of a dark century. He was born into a Polish-Jewish family in Warsaw. Both of his grandfathers and two of his great-grandfathers had been murdered in a pogrom on Easter Sunday in 1903. The rest of his own nuclear family — his mother, his father, and his sister — were later murdered by the Nazis.
Weinberg escaped by himself and fled east in 1939 to the Soviet Union, arriving at age 20. He was given a new name (Mieczyslaw became Moisey), and began a new chapter of his life, one of startling accomplishment. He studied composition with a student of Rimsky-Korsakov, he married the daughter of the legendary Jewish actor and director Solomon Mikhoels, and he settled in Moscow with help from Dmitri Shostakovich, a musical idol who became a close friend and artistic fellow traveler.
Weinberg’s own brutal trials, however, continued in the Soviet Union. His father-in-law, Mikhoels, was notoriously murdered by Stalin’s operatives in 1948, and for the next five years, Weinberg himself was under intense state surveillance. The long-anticipated knock at the door came in 1953, and he was imprisoned for 11 weeks, saved from execution perhaps only by the fact that Stalin died one month later.
Weinberg went on to outlive not only Stalin and Hitler, but the Soviet Union itself. Remarkably, as the scholar David Fanning conveys in his biography, the composer never saw himself as a victim, though along the way Weinberg did come to feel that it was, in his own words, “impossible to repay the debt” he had incurred through the simple, mind-warping fact of his own survival. He seemed to compose music almost penitentially — he once called it “creative hard labor” — to atone, to memorialize, to find sense in a world in which there was none to be found. And he composed constantly. The ultimate results were seven operas, 26 symphonies, 17 string quartets, six concertos, and over two dozen sonatas, as well as ballets, rhapsodies, and more.
Dipping into Weinberg’s catalog is a heady and strange experience. At first blush, the music’s indebtedness to Shostakovich can feel glaringly obvious. But the more closely you listen, the more individual, and at times powerfully raw, his voice becomes. You come to realize that the lines of influence between the two composers ran in both directions.